There is no single origin story for mental illness. There are genes and what passes through them; there are early onset signs that may be treated if they weren’t missed or ignored; there are traumas that bring forth something in the brain’s chemistry that wouldn’t have reared its ugly head otherwise; but there is not a single, unifying, explanation. As a logical person, an atheist, a believer in science and technology, you would think this would drive me nuts.
It hasn’t. My search for an origin story for my eating disorder, depression, and anxiety has long been abandoned. I can tell where some of my more neurotic patterns come from (I over-explain sometimes, like my mother; I am unable to half-ass things even when they’re not important, like my father), but I cannot tell the exact moment I became mentally ill. That’s okay. The most important part, for me, is treating my symptoms.
My father died when I was sixteen. My therapist thinks a lot of what I’ve experienced since has to do with that trauma – he was an amazing father, and I helped take care of him during the eight months of his illness. Those months and his subsequent death made me an adult before my time, and it took years before I felt that people my own age had caught up with me.
Context helps. At least, it does for me. Knowing the sequence of when and how things started, when they were diagnosed, when I began to feel better about them – this helps me see how far I’ve come. I am a writer, a storyteller, and my mental illnesses don’t exist without their own narratives.
I graduated from high school in 2008, in Israel (where I spent most of my life) and took a gap year to universities and colleges here in the US. There is no guidance counselor kind of person in Israeli high schools who helps you with college applications because few people go to study right after high school; Israelis complete their mandatory military service, two to three years, right after high school. I was not going to the army. My plan had always been to go to college in the US, where I was born and which I considered just as much of a home as Israel.
I worked during my gap year and researched and applied to eighteen schools. Yes. I know. That’s a lot. I was convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere because, despite my stellar academic record, there are no AP classes in Israel, no extracurricular activities on my record. Having boyfriends, losing one’s virginity, starting to drink and smoke – those don’t count.
I was a bit chubby, a bit pear shaped, though others tell me otherwise, and during that year I had a boyfriend I loved but who, when I started losing weight, liked it at first, comparing my old body to two kinds of cars he liked; one was a run-of-the-mill car and the second was a Ferrari. He doesn’t remember saying this, and it has taken me a long time to admit that his words probably sent me into a deeper spiral, because we were together and very much in love with each other two years. Even before he said that, I knew what I was doing, or thought I did. I had read a couple novels in which girls had anorexia or bulimia, and even though the message in those books were that it is a terrible, haunting, and hurting disease, I found it attractive. I admired the self-control involved, and when I first saw my ribs and collarbone, I was thrilled. Working helped, since I had hours at a stretch where I wasn’t around my mother, who began to notice something going on. She and my boyfriend (who by then had grown alarmed by my boniness) helped me realize that I was ill and that I should see a therapist. I’d gotten into and chosen where I wanted to go to college and my mother threatened that she wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t get better. So I did.
Sort of. At college, I was in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend, had two terrible roommates, and loved to study. I buried myself in the library and got straight As in order to avoid my roommates and food. I played Magenta in the Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast, feeling brave for exposing my body so much, but looking back, the pictures are scary. I look skeletal in my maid uniform and poofed up hair.
I had to leave after my first semester. I spent a year on medical leave. I read 144 books that year. I took a class about Classical Greece. I worked with a therapist and a dietician. I was diagnosed with depression by a psychiatrist and worked with him on finding medication that made me feel better. When I tried to go off them, a year and a half later, I made stupid decisions, and had to go back on.
I still hate my body. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop. But I feed it and nourish it now, by habit as well as out of fear of returning to that place where every breath of wind made me shiver. I had always loved the cold, until I got so skinny that the cold actually scared me. I never want to go back there again.
Recently, a new psychiatrist diagnosed me with anxiety. I’m on too many meds for my liking, but I take them. Because what I’ve achieved since beginning to handle my eating disorder and my depression is too good to give up: I spent a year at Oxford, I graduated college, I started calling myself a writer, I became a working writer, I have been published, I have been (and am) loved by good and beautiful people, and I am continuing to work on my “issues.” I live with my brain every day; I don’t hate it anymore.
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Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer and editor living in NYC. She has been published in The New Yorker, Printer’s Row, McSweeney’s, Tin House, The Rumpus, The Toast, Four Chambers Press, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers.
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